Chief justice pitches a plan for building new family courts

DOVER — To fix downstate Delaware’s Family Court issues, the judiciary’s top official is turning to the private sector.

Chief Justice Leo Strine pitched the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement Monday on working with non-governmental organizations, chiefly businesses, to build and maintain new Family Court facilities in Kent and Sussex counties.

Chief Justice Strine has been sounding the alarm on the two courts for years, urging lawmakers to replace buildings many characterize as cramped and unsafe.

On Monday they were variously described as “abhorrent” and “legitimate, urgent needs” by legislators, while the chief justice almost pleaded with the committee about constructing new facilities, telling members they need to do right by Delaware’s people and economy.

Built in 1988, the Kent and Sussex Family Courts are too small and lack proper safety precautions, according to court officials. In the Kent building, prisoners and judges use the same elevator, there are only a few holding cells and offices are tiny.

The Kent courthouse needs to be twice as large for the population it serves, while the Sussex facility is one-third the size it should be, according to judicial standards.

The size and design of the two courts mean victims sometimes are forced to interact with their accusers, while members of the public are often in close proximity with inmates.

The two downstate facilities were declared to “fail modern day security and operational requirements” in a 2012 report from the U.S. Marshals Service, per the Delaware courts.

All those flaws have some lawmakers strongly siding with Chief Justice Strine.

“It’s not that’d it would be nice to have new courthouses, these courthouses are dangerous,” said Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, a Republican whose district includes the Sussex Family Court building in Georgetown.

Under the chief justice’s vision, Delaware would sign a contract with a business or other entities that would build and maintain two new courthouses, one in Dover and one in Georgetown.

The state would pay about $15 million per year over 30 years or so, and when that period is up, it would assume ownership of the buildings, Chief Justice Strine said to the committee, comparing an agreement to a mortgage.

The two buildings would be designed and built together, saving the state money in planning and construction costs.

The other option is for lawmakers to allocate funding for the judiciary to build new facilities, but there are two clear problems there: time and cost. Building the two could take $200 million, a sum the courts would have to wait years to accumulate.

The governor’s recommended budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 proposes to provide $6.85 million for the judiciary, the same amount it was earmarked for the current year.

“We’re not going to get them solved with $6.5 million a year going to the courts. It’s going to, well, I’ll be dead and gone before we have two and maybe before we have one,” committee co-chair Sen. Dave Sokola said after the meeting.

The Newark Democrat is supportive of the chief justice’s plan, although he believes such a decision would have to involve more lawmakers than just the 12 on the Joint Committee on Capital Improvement.

Locations have already been picked out, thanks to funding provided in prior budgets. The Kent courthouse would be placed at the intersection of Governors Avenue and Water Street, less than a mile from the current location. The Sussex courthouse would sit at the corner of Market and Race streets, practically a stone’s throw from the current site.

A broader strategy would have the judiciary also make changes in New Castle County, moving judicial chambers from one building in Wilmington to another and expanding the Leonard L. Williams Justice Center.

“There’s no alchemy to this. There’s no way anything becomes free, but you can do things in a more efficient way,” Chief Justice Strine said.

The public-private partnership model, which was endorsed by Gov. John Carney in 2017 when he shuttered the state’s economic development office in favor of such a partnership, could be adopted by other state bodies if it works for the courts.

The state’s top judge seemed to almost admonish the committee at times Monday, arguing lawmakers have in recent years taken the legal services industry, one of Delaware’s most important fields, for granted. By failing to provide adequate funding, the General Assembly has made it difficult for the state to remain a leader in legal services, he said.

Thanks to some friendly statutes, extensive caselaw and a well-respected Court of Chancery, Delaware is a leader in incorporation, the legal home to more than 1 million companies, including more than 60 percent of Fortune 500 businesses.

That means Delaware collects billions in related taxes while thousands of its citizens work in a job created and maintained by the state’s status as a corporate haven.

Because of its high return on investment and the vital role it plays in allowing the state to thrive, the legal services industry must be protected and nurtured, the chief justice said.

In the past, the General Assembly has acted to protect a smaller number of jobs, he noted. In 2016, lawmakers approved legislation changing the corporate tax structure in an effort to incentivize DuPont to keep one of its spinoff companies in the state.

“You could get both buildings built much quicker, address the unsafe conditions, give Delawareans a dignified place to go, help our downtowns because these courthouses will be beautiful and they’ll encourage other businesses to locate around them, they’re located in brownfields and in places that actually need revitalization,” Chief Justice Strine said after his presentation.

“So, if we do it, if we go bold and think of it a different way, we’ll get a better deal for our citizens who go to court, a better deal for taxpayers, a better deal for our business community, and by the way, those buildings get built by hardworking Delawareans who get a nice paycheck and so what we’re urging is let’s think boldly, let’s invest in our state and make our community better.”

The exact timetable and costs for construction are unknown.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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